One of the symbols of city, a pearl of renaissance architecture, Kraków’s oldest “commercial centre”: Sukiennice or the Cloth Hall is one of the most important elements of the architectural heritage of Kraków.
The Cloth Hall was one of the most important institutions of the city, for it was where trade was concentrated. The original Cloth Hall, built in the 13th century when Kraków received its city charter, consisted of two rows of stone stalls forming a street in the centre of the market square. The grates of both ends were locked for the night to keep thieves away. A roofed masonry version of the Cloth Hall was built in the 14th century: its traces are visible to this day in the arcades on the shorter sides. Trading in the Cloth Hall was a significant source of the city’s revenue: according to a royal privilege cloth merchants arriving in the city could only sell their goods here.
Little wonder that after the building was consumed by fire in 1555, its reconstruction began apace. Working on it were the finest architects, and outstanding artists and artisans, including many Italians who arrived in Poland following Queen Bona Sforza (wife of King Sigismund (Zygmunt) the Old, who hailed from Bari in Italy). It was then that the renovated Cloth Hall gained its long parapet with a decorative frieze and gargoyles: grotesque stylised human heads designed by an eminent Italian sculptor, Santi Gucci. The main hall was divided into two storeys: the first floor was earmarked to be the second trading hall, known as smatruz. It was used for trading in various minor goods, while the name hailing from the German schmettern is derived from the clamour and racket that the female sellers working here made. Leading to the smatruz were the stairs in the loggias designed by Giovanni Maria Padovano and situated on the shorter sides of the building.
With the passing years, the unrestored and unrenovated Cloth Hall gradually lost its lustre. Finally, in the 19th century the bedraggled building, that had clusters of wooden sheds stuck to it on the outside, in no way recalled the pearl of renaissance Kraków. A thorough renovation became a must, and the building we see today is its product: the hovels were demolished, arcaded galleries added, and the former smartuz was turned into a gallery of Polish painting. Trade however, was not removed from the building: the long hall of the ground floor is still full of stalls that today have souvenirs for sale instead of cloth.
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